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Thursday Thorns
Why Vintage Matters More Now Than Ever

By Stephen Eliot

Prediction always comes with a measure of risk in that absolutely no one really knows just what tomorrow will bring, and, even if guesses are educated, a measure of hazard surely remains. That said, prediction has always played a sizeable role in wine journalism from competing prognostications about how this or that vintage will turn out to which wines will age and for how long.

We have always been uneasy about making summary conclusions about vintage, despite what winemakers and weather summations might have us believe, until the wines of any year were safely in bottle. We do, however, admit to listening and watching attentively as each season unfolds, and 2013 is no different.

Not so long ago, there were more than a few folks in the wine biz who were making the claim that vintages in California no longer mattered. While I concede that a vintage date might be more telling with French wines as opposed to those made hereabouts, pronouncements that the notion of vintage lacked any significance locally always rang a bit hollow to me. They were and are part and parcel of the rhetoric of those who were quick to demean most anything and everything about new world winemaking. The wines are formulaic, industrial and lacking in soul we were told, and both temperate climes and ubiquitous winemaking technology made for a very small pigeon hole into which all wines save those from Europe could easily fit. And, the chorus was growing.

A succession of three somewhat cooler and sometimes difficult vintages starting in 2009 and the very promising 2012 harvest have pretty much put an end to claims of unchanging homogeneity. The last couple of years, in fact, have seen plenty of commentary and debate on the virtues and shortcomings of each.

As always, there will be greater and lesser wines to be found in every year, but some harvests are bountiful and others downright stingy when it comes to wines of real achievement and stature. We cannot say we are all that impressed by the 2011 harvest that was touted by some as a breakthrough vintage that would redefine fine wine in California, but we have found plenty of wines that we like. 2012 has had wine country buzzing since the first grapes came in, and, while we have enjoyed a good many barrel samples and early releases from 2012, we would not say that every one has been stunning.

Chatter about the upcoming 2013 harvest seems to be increasing every day, and it looks to be one of the earliest on record. Expect to hear more and more on the topic in the weeks to come. There is concern on the part of some winemakers as to whether or not the season will be long enough for the grapes to develop full character, and, of course, there are others who are already declaring it a great success even while the grapes are still on the vine.

The point, dear readers, is that vintage does matter in California; it always has. We may not suffer the extremes and the hazards of the classic wine-growing regions of Europe, but there are differences great and small to be found from year to year here. The date on the bottle should never be seen as absolutely predictive of just what is inside any more than should a designation of place, but it is an important piece of the larger puzzle that should not be ignored when picking out bottles for the table and cellar.

And with collectable wine, Cabernet Sauvignon being the best example, experiencing a continued rise in pricing for the best of the breed, it means that mistakes can be costly. We are now entering a period in which 2010 and 2011 will dominate our attention, and the inconsistencies noted demand that wines be bought with great selectivity. It may have always been thus, but the price of a poor selection will take more out of your pocketbook now than it ever has in the past.


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